Babies can’t eat honey because it can cause ‘infant botulism’ — here’s what that means

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  • Babies less than one-year-old can get seriously sick from eating honey.
  • Honey contains C. botulinum bacteria, which can produce a toxin in a baby’s large intestine, leading to a rare but serious illness known as "infant botulism."
  • Fortunately, infant botulism is not very common, and infant botulism due to honey is even rarer. But the FDA recommends waiting until your baby is one year old to feed them the sweet treat.

While most adults can eat honey without problems, it’s a different story for babies less than one-year-old. Honey contains C. botulinum bacteria, which can produce a toxin in a baby’s large intestine, leading to a rare but serious illness known as "infant botulism."

Following is a transcript of the video.

This is C. botulinum. It’s a bacterium that can produce one of the world’s most lethal substances. It lives in lots of places including the soil, pollen, dust, and also right here: in honey.

So why haven’t you died from eating this sweet treat? Well, because you’re not a baby. As C. botulinum grows, it produces a toxin called botulinum. It’s the same stuff used in Botox. But Botox has an extremely low dose compared to infected food. In large amounts, the toxin would attack your nervous system causing the illness known as botulism.

Which can lead to paralysis and even death. And since C. botulinum is so common in our environment, researchers believe that bees pick it up on their way to the hive, where they produce honey.

One study found C. botulinum bacteria in about 8% of their honey samples. But before you purge your pantry, consider this: Normally when we encounter C. botulinum, like in honey, it’s dormant. And in this sleepy state, it can’t produce the toxin. Even if you eat it. That is, unless you’re less than 1 year old.

When C. botulinum enters a baby’s large intestine, it comes alive. Because, unlike children and adults, babies less than one year old haven’t been eating real, solid foods.

Instead, they drink milk. But when babies are around 4 to 6 months old, they stop drinking human milk and they start eating other foods they’ve never had before. As a result, their gut microbes change very abruptly. And it’s during this transition period in the baby’s gut, that the lethal C. botulinum bacteria are free to grow and produce the toxin.

As the toxin enters the baby’s bloodstream, it blocks the ability of motor nerves to release acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that sends nerve signals to muscles. As a result, the baby starts to lose control of muscles and appears tired and floppy. As more toxin enters the bloodstream, the muscles that control swallowing and breathing stop working.

Fortunately, infant botulism is not very common, and infant botulism due to honey is even rarer. Fewer than 100 cases occur in the US each year, and while it’s difficult to pinpoint the source of the bacterium in many cases, experts think honey accounts for 15% of cases.

So it’s important that if your infant shows signs of weakness,you take them to be evaluated by medical professionals immediately, in some cases, doctors can administer an effective antitoxin. But it can take babies weeks to a month to recover. The FDA recommends waiting until your baby’s first birthday to feed them honey or any products that are filled or dipped in honey.

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